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Palin candidacy sparks working moms debate

Palin’s candidacy is shining the spotlight on the sticky topic of whether having such a hard-working mom in the White House would ultimately help or hurt other working mothers.
Image: Sarah and Trig Palin
Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin holds her son, Trig, on stage during the Republican National Convention. Palin's candidacy has sparked a debate about working moms.Win Mcnamee / Getty Images file

For most working mothers, the third day after giving birth to a new baby is still a whirlwind of joy, sleep deprivation and recovery. For Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, it also was time to go back to work.

Palin, who is now the Republican vice presidential candidate, returned to her job just a few days after giving birth last April to her fifth child, Trig, who has Down syndrome. She toted her newborn son to official events and nursed him during conference calls.

Palin’s candidacy is shining the spotlight on countless issues surrounding working women, including the sticky topic of whether having such a hard-working mom in the White House would ultimately help or hurt other working mothers fighting to find a balance between their jobs and family life.

“It’s caused us as a society to have discussions that we haven’t had before,” said Mary Gatta, director of workforce policy and research at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work.

It’s far from clear how those discussions — some of them heated — will trickle down to the lives of everyday mothers and fathers, many of whom are raising children and working under very different circumstances than Palin.

Experts say that in some ways Palin’s visibility could be a benefit to working mothers — and their spouses —  who are seeing their own struggles writ large in a public arena. But others worry that Palin’s candidacy could spark a backlash against working mothers, either because Palin has faced such strong criticism for pursuing a high-powered job while raising young kids or because more mothers could face pressure to return to work as quickly as Palin did.

Gatta also notes that just because Palin is a working mother herself does not mean she will automatically support federal policies that could benefit other working moms or dads — especially since Republicans traditionally have opposed some of those policies.

A spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign said she was unable to say at this time what Palin’s position is on federal policies relating to job protections and benefits for working mothers.

Palin herself has dismissed those who call into question her ability to balance raising five children with her political duties.

''To any critics who say a woman can't think and work and carry a baby at the same time, I’d just like to escort that Neanderthal back to the cave,” the Anchorage Daily News quoted Palin saying last March, after the surprise announcement that she was seven months pregnant with Trig.

Some argue, however, that the discussion isn’t about whether Palin — or any other woman, for that matter — can juggle the demands of a high-powered job and a family, but rather why she would want to.

In an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argued that  more women are moving away from the notion of “having it all” and toward the idea of a work/life balance that allows them time for both.

The authors of a forthcoming book on the trend said Palin has hit a nerve “not because she's a woman with children trying to do a man's job. It's because she's actually pushing the combination of professional and personal ambitions beyond the sensibilities of this generation of working moms.”

Janet Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology at City University of New York and an expert on family leave policies worldwide, said she has no concerns with Palin returning to work so soon after her infant was born — as long as Palin was making that choice, rather than being forced to get back on the job.

She notes that educated women in high-level jobs like Palin are likely to have more flexibility when it comes to balancing family and work life. On the other hand, women in lower-paying jobs such as housekeeping or retail are less likely to be able to take a child to work, work from home or find a place to breastfeed or pump milk for a baby.

Her concern is that Palin may be held up as a champion of working moms when it’s far from clear that Palin would support the kind of policies that she believes could make it easier for all working women to balance child-rearing responsibilities.

“Personally, I don’t care about any of this: Her children, the moose burgers, the pistol packing,” Gornick said. “I care about the policy story. She is running with a party that has opposed, at the state and national level, virtually every form of policy that supports working parents.”

A key piece of that policy, the Family Medical Leave Act, guarantees male and female employees who meet certain criteria 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical reasons, including childbirth. Former Democratic President Clinton signed the law into effect in 1993, after years of political wrangling. His Republican predecessor, the first President Bush, had previously vetoed the legislation.

Michelle Easton, president of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a nonprofit that promotes conservative women leaders, declined to discuss Palin specifically. But she said she believes that, in general, conservative women favor ironing out work/life balance issues on their own, rather than having legislation that mandates certain policies.

“Conservatives tend to look to the family and private sector whereas liberal women, feminist women, say, ‘Oh we have a problem, let’s create a program,’ ” Easton said.

Palin’s candidacy also has shed light on another brewing change among working women: The dads’ increased role in child-rearing, epitomized in this case by Palin’s husband, Todd.

Marji Ross, president of the conservative publisher Regnery Publishing, said she thinks Palin’s candidacy has again reminded Americans that a double standard exists between working mothers and working fathers. But Ross, who said she shares the job of raising her three daughters with her husband, also hopes it has prompted a discussion about how more dads these days are picking up some of the workload that traditionally fell only to moms.

Ross said the candidacy also has helped battle the stereotype that career women are more liberal, while those who choose to stay at home are more conservative.

Indeed, the prospect of the nation's highest-ranking female politician being a Republican has raised some uncomfortable issues for liberal-leaning feminists, who might otherwise have been among her biggest boosters.

“If she’s experiencing sexism, that’s wrong, regardless of her policy issues,” said Gatta of Rutgers. “You can support her fair treatment without necessarily supporting her policies.”